It’s 10 minutes before you walk on stage. You know you’re prepared, but there are people in the audience whose opinions mean a lot to you, and you’re playing some difficult repertoire. As the butterflies start swirling around in your tummy, what should you do?
Is it better to stay relentlessly positive and write down all your good optimistic thoughts before walking on stage?
Or is it better to be honest with yourself and write down all your negative thoughts and worries about the upcoming performance instead?
The test anxiety literature provides some intriguing answers.
Yes, I know that taking a final exam in organic chemistry and playing in the finals of an orchestra audition are two very different tasks, but when it comes to our focus and attention, there are some key similarities.
Recall that there are two broad categories of elements we can think about when we’re performing:
- Task-relevant details that will help us play better (or in a testing situation, read/process the question, recall relevant info, and answer the question correctly)
- Task-irrelevant details that lead us to play below our abilities (or worry about whether we know the answer or not, re-read the question multiple times without really reading it, freak out about failing the exam, and blank out on much of the information until we walk out of the test and suddenly remember all the right answers)
As you probably can guess, our ability to focus on the things that are relevant and ignore the things that aren’t, is a critical skill that largely determines the quality of our performance.
The problem of course, is that it’s exceedingly easy to worry about our shaky sound, about the difficult passage coming up, and what will happen if we make a mistake. We know this isn’t helpful, but these worries have a way of intruding on our thoughts like the annoying neighbors next door who invite themselves over, and then won’t leave when it’s time for dinner.
The more we engage in these negative and task-irrelevant thoughts, the more our Working Memory system gets monopolized by crap that doesn’t help us play better (Working Memory is akin to the RAM in our computers, as compared with Long Term Memory which is like the hard drive).
And when our Working Memory system is overextended, our ability to focus appropriately on the things that will help us play better and ignore the things that are going to make our performance suffer becomes compromised.
It’s as if you are trying to write a super awesome blog post, but your kids and their friends are playing Mario Sports on the Wii and screaming “alley-oop, alley-oop!” The rowdier and crazier they get, the harder it is to focus on the writing and ignore the yelling.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could quiet all those negative thoughts, worries, and concerns about our performance as we are playing?
Researchers have experimented with a strategy that appears to help with this.
Interestingly enough, it’s probably the last thing any of us would think to do in the moments before a performance.
Several studies have demonstrated the benefits of a technique called expressive writing on both physical and emotional health (here’s a nice review, if you’d like to read more). But more interestingly, it seems that this technique can free up some of our precious Working Memory by making it less likely for negative thoughts to creep in uninvited.
Researchers at the University of Chicago decided to test this expressive writing technique in a pair of studies on high-school students.
In the first study, they found that among students who didn’t do any expressive writing, there was a clear relationship between their anxiety and test scores. The more anxious, the worse their scores. And among those students who did do some expressive writing? Well, their scores didn’t seem to be affected by test anxiety.
In the second study, they found that among the higher test-anxious students, those who did the expressive writing exercise received a B+. Those who didn’t do the exercise received a B-.
All of which suggests that if you tend to get anxious before tests and have a lot of worries and negative thoughts, writing these down right before the exam may keep them from intruding on your thoughts, thereby helping you to perform up to your abilities.
So can this be applied to musicians and performance? To be honest, it has not specifically been tested with musicians, but I think it’s worth experimenting with if you can do so in a systematic way.
What I mean is, don’t try this for the first time before a huge performance. Try before a low-key performance, like studio class or a coaching first. Simply take a few minutes to write down your thoughts and emotions about the upcoming performance on a piece of paper perhaps 10 minutes or so before you go on stage.
Afterwards, rate the quality of of your performance and also your level of focus during the performance. Were you inundated with doubts and worries, or did you find it easier to stay focused on the task at hand?
Then kick it up a notch and try this before a performance that is slightly more stressful. Rate your performance and focus again, and then if all continues to go well, try it before the next performance, and the next, and the next, until you have enough data to gauge whether this is helping you quiet the negative thoughts and play up to your abilities more consistently.